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Monday, March 14, 2011

My Great Movies: Platoon

A very good friend of mine once told me that “Platoon”, writer/director Oliver Stone’s Best Picture winner (1986), an intense immersion into the Vietnam War, was held back from being a great movie solely on account of Charlie Sheen’s lead performance as Pvt. Chris Taylor, the film’s protagonist, whose performance was merely average. I could not say I agreed. “Platoon” is my favorite war film which, frankly, seems wrong to type. My favorite war film? It’s like saying “The Reader” is my favorite Holocaust film, which it is, because not only could you debate the veracity of it being a "Holocaust film" but because, well, are you allowed to have a “favorite” Holocaust film? Or a “favorite” war film? Are those sins?

The late Samuel Fuller, a maverick who directed his fair share of war movies, once dismissed the majority of them as being “goddam recruiting film(s).” This is in stark contrast to that guy named Steven Spielberg who once said: “Every war movie, good or bad, is an antiwar movie.” Really, Steve? You think so? Did you know that I once knew someone who upon seeing “Saving Private Ryan” said to me (honestly): “That’s the only movie I’ve ever seen that made me want to go to war.” I wasn’t even sure how to respond. I’m still not.

I do not mean, not in any, way, shape or form, to disparage those who risk their lives in the American armed forces. God, no. Those men and women are approximately 925 million times more brave than I could hope to be in my wildest dreams and I thank every single one of them for what they choose to do every day. But I think so many war films - and this is certainly what Fuller was driving at - glorify the entire ordeal, whether they intend to or not. And “Platoon”, more than any other movie centered around war I have ever seen, was the one I have always felt most actively and effectively de-glorified the experience while still actually being a film, a superb film, not merely a slogan.

“Saving Private Ryan” has that gargantuan D-Day re-enactment near its start, sure, that is brutal and real and horrifying but that is not actually how the movie begins, remember? It begins with a shot of the American flag flapping in the wind. “Platoon”, on the other hand, opens with Sheen’s Chris arriving in “the ‘Nam” to the sight of body bags and then that creepy guy walking in the other direction staring at Chris with that creepy smile and, like it or not, the opening to a film so often establishes its true tone and the true tone of each of these films can be found right there in those two moments. Old Glory versus Creepy Guy. Tell me, which one’s anti-war?

The Charlie Sheen of then was an actor primarily of laconic disinterest. Whether or not he was always supposed to be disinterested is another matter, but that is what he tended to project. The disinterest he displays early in "Platoon" is right on the money for the character. There is that scene where Chris and Crawford (Chris Pederson) and King (Keith David) are cleaning out the latrines and only at this point do we get any kind of handle on why Chris has ended up here. Dropped out of college. Volunteered. Asked for infantry, combat, Vietnam, “I figure, why should just the poor kids go off to war and the rich kids get away with it?” But it’s Sheen’s delivery that renders this revelation so striking. His natural disposition makes it sound so insincere, so false, so “This is what I’m supposed to say.” He knows the words, not the tune. He even smiles and laughs a little - at himself. "Can you believe that?" King calls him a “crusader” but I think that we think that Chris knows better.

Famously, Oliver Stone initially wanted to cast Sheen's brother, Emilio Estevez, who turned down the part at which point Stone offered it to Sheen. It's debatable, certainly, that Sheen is doing anything much beyond playing a part squarely in his wheelhouse. Frankly, there is not much difference between Chris Taylor and that guy in the police station in "Ferris Bueller Day's Off" (another 1986 release) who flirts with Ferris's sister. Their demeanors are very much the same. Strange as it sounds, this is a good thing. He mimics the stance of an idealist but he's just fakin' it. He's tethered to nothing.

Remember when the platoon is being sent out on “ambush” into the foreboding jungle at night and Johnny Cash is ominously strumming on the soundtrack and Chris finds himself talking with Pvt. Gardner, a “lard ass”, who shows off a picture of his “Lucy Jean” back on the home front? “She’s the one for me, that Lucy Jean,” proclaims Gardner. Sheen’s reply is classic: “Real pretty. You’re a lucky guy, Gardner.” It’s the way he says it. Total disinterest. Whatever. Whoever. You know we're about to go into the jungle, right?  Chris writes his grandma at home, this much we glean from his voiceover. Why not his parents? The movie never says. The movie, in fact, doesn't say much of anything movies of this sort typically say to not only drive home points but to give the audience its normal bearings. Its intention is to disorient.

Consider that opening title card: "September 1967, Bravo Company, 25th Infantry, Somewhere Near The Cambodian Border." Key word: Somewhere. We don’t really know where they are. We don’t really know what they’re doing. They don’t really know where they are. They don’t really know what they’re doing. You want guideposts and mile markers? Look elsewhere. At base camp we find Chris digging a hole and expressing this very sensation via voiceover: "I don’t even know what I’m doing." His face shows it. Gone. Disconnected. Logistics and strategy are almost irrelevant. Reason seems useless. "I don't think I can keep this up for a year, grandma. I think I made a big mistake coming here." Yeesh. That line gives me the willies, and if the actor had gone for affect on the words, it wouldn't have been as chilling.

Chris doesn't really understand what he's doing, perhaps, until the film's halfway point. This is when platoon enters an ancient village and Chris finds a kid hiding and pulls him up and out of his hole, screaming all the while, and Pvt. Francis (Corey Glover) tries to calm him down: "Be cool. They're scared, man." Chris erupts: "They're scared?! What about me?! I'm sick of this f---ing s---!" Then he really loses it, aiming his machine gun at the kid's feet, spraying bullets, ordering him to "dance". Yet, it's almost like enlightenment. He could kill this kid (and, terribly, Kevin Dillon's unhinged Bunny will do just that) but he doesn't. He walks away. It's a crucial moment. And Sheen is scary convincing in that moment. Later, he helps a village girl being mistreated, shaking his head, disbelieving, intoning to his fellow soldiers, "You just don't get it, do you?"

For much of the film Stone has presented us the simmering rivalry between Sgt. Barnes (Tom Berenger) and Sgt. Elias (Willem Dafoe) and it is here, in the village, in a sort of mini My Lai, that Stone serves up one of the intense, terrifying passages ever captured on film in which Barnes coldly, quickly, matter-of-factly makes a decision that takes the heart right out of you. Later Barnes blathers about when men don't follow orders "the machine breaks down" but, in reality, the machine breaks down right here. Elias confronts him. Afterwards, he will file a report. The movie stops paying attention to the war with the Vietnamese. That's immaterial. Now it's about Elias vs. Barnes. And Barnes will kill Elias. And Chris will kill Barnes.

Chris came to Vietnam, despite what he may have tried to claim, for no good reason. Yet his friendship with Elias, and others, helps him to figure out his reasoning and to gain ideals and so when Elias is gunned down by Barnes it is those very ideals which push Chris to retaliate and that moment between he and Barnes at the end is not one of triumph, not some cinematic precipice that has been scaled, but disillusion, all the ideals stripped away. "All the humanity goes out of you." That's what Dale Dye, an ex marine, the film's technical adviser, says at one point on the commentary track.

Perhaps "Platoon" is best summarized the morning after the last gigantic attack when Pvt. Francis finds himself alone and uninjured in a foxhole. He looks around. No one's watching. This is his chance. He takes a knife and thrusts it into his leg. When we catch up with him again he is laying on his side on a stretcher, as if it's a beach towel in St. Tropez, smoking a cigarette, calling out to the also-injured Chris across the way "We two-timers, man!" meaning that because they both have been wounded twice they get to go home. "Saving Private Ryan" ends with, again, the American flag flapping in the wind. "Platoon" ends with a guy jamming a knife into his own leg. Tell me, which one's anti-war?

I re-watched "Platoon" for the first time in many years for, I think, an obvious reason - that is, to prove to myself that this current bonkers, F-18 Charlie Sheen ("The proof's in the eyes, man!" is what Chris says of Sgt. Barnes and which might be used to describe present day Charlie Sheen) could not assuage the power of my favorite war film. He doesn't. On top of that, I still think the Charlie Sheen of then gives an above average performance and, most significantly, it still doesn't make me want to go to war.


Wretched Genius said...

Favorite Holocaust film: The Grey Zone

Favorite war film: Platoon*

So yes, you are allowed to have favorites in those categories.

(* This takes into account the following technicalities:
1. Black Hawk Down does not take place during a war, and is thus a Military film.
2. I consider The Thin Red Line to be a philosophical film rather than a War film.
3. The Pacific, Band of Brothers and Generation Kill are all miniseries.

Nick Prigge said...

Ah, interesting. I'd always called "Black Hawk Down" my 2nd favorite war film but now I'll just make it my favorite military film. Nicely played.

Andy Buckle said...

Platoon is my favorite film of ALL TIME! Has been for about 10 years now. The second time I watched it was easily the best film experience of my life to date. A truly harrowing account of war. Great analysis!

Nick Prigge said...

Wow. Thank you. So glad you told me after or otherwise I likely would have succumbed to the pressure of trying to do it proper justice.